February 26, 2011

Trust No Agent (Review: Jenna and Jonah's Fauxmance; B. Halpin and E. Franklin)

Jenna & Jonah's FauxmanceJenna and Jonah's Fauxmance
Emily Franklin and Brendan Halpin
Bloomsbury 2011

Charlie Tracker and Fielding Withers are a teen dream team. Stars of their own hit show, both they and their alter egos Jenna and Jonah live in a whirl of music, makeup and young love – both on and off screen. At least, that's what they're contracted to do. The thing is, Charlie and Fielding really cannot stand each other – their off screen love affair is as fake as Jenna and Jonah's on screen one, and it's getting harder and harder to smile for the camera. With their young audience hooked on their on and off-screen personas, Charlie and Fielding are an endless source of speculation for the gossip mags and lurking paparazzi. When scandal rears it's inevitable head, cracks start to show in their “fauxmance” and they find themselves in hiding with no agents, no cameras and no script.

Of our two narrators, Charlie is perhaps the less accessible. Having literally been on stage since she was in nappies, she's fairly hard-bitten when it comes to the ways of Hollywood. Having sued her parents (who'd sucked her bank accounts dry) she lives as an emancipated minor and is a young lady very much in charge of her own life. Yet this comes at a cost, leaving her with control issues and endless worry for her future. She's not stupid, she knows that her current dream teen status and harbours quiet dreams of a more serious acting career. For all Charlie is a slightly brittle character, there is enough softness written into her narration that when she inevitably warms to the more laid-back Fielding it doesn't seem out of place. My only issue with her was that she often seemed to think one thing and then contradict it with her actions – that would be fine except that there often seemed to be no explanation of this even in her own inner monologue.

Fielding is certainly an easier character to get to know, less challenging and perhaps less compelling than Charlie but often more enjoyable to read. His background is the polar opposite of Charlie's, with his loving mother encouraging but never pushing him to rise above their rather lowly circumstances. He's just as adept at the fame game as Charlie, but has no ambition other than to earn enough playing Jonah to enable him to retire, live on the beach, read books and perhaps go to college. Just as his laissez-faire attitude infuriates Charlie, her controlling behaviour and anxious behaviour irritate him to the point of distraction – although he does seem to harbour slightly warmer feelings towards her than vice versa. Fielding seems to care little about his ability to act and I enjoyed the fact that it seemed to come effortlessly to him, an aspect of his character that again contradicts the less natural Charlie.

The plot of Jenna and Jonah's Fauxmance is one of two parts. Charlie and Fielding's initial escape and hideaway at the beach and a second section where they find themselves sent (by their respective agents) to prove their acting ability at some sort of Shakespeare In The Woods event. These two sections are distinctly different in tone and pace and didn't run together particularly well. However, despite the rather awkward join, both are hugely enjoyable. By placing Charlie and Fielding at the beach, the authors allow readers to get to know both characters before progressing the story with the serious-acting plot. The second section of the book also weaves in a lovely, if not so subtle, reflection of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing with Charlie and Fielding inhabiting the characters of Benedict and Beatrice both on stage and in real life. It's charmingly well realised and reintroduced me to a play that I love for both it's humour and romance – aspects that also embody Jenna and Jonah's Fauxmance, making the book both hilarious and touching.

Jenna and Jonah's Fauxmance, while undeniably light, does look at the various pitfalls of celebrity culture. Charlie's story in particular, hovers around the possible plight of child stars and contrived romance aspect not only seemed perfectly possible but also hinted at media manipulation and exploitation of vulnerable young actors. However, do not be mistaken – this is not a dark nor difficult read. Having read a lot of issue ridden titles recently it was a pleasure to read such a disarmingly charming story that had me laughing out loud. Jenna and Jonah's Fauxmance is a whole pile of fun and the quite frankly kick-ass cover is a good indicator of the tone of the book – smart, funny storytelling combined with a wry, if light-hearted, take on the fame machine and our modern day cult of celebrity.   

Jenna and Jonah's Fauxmance will be available in the UK on 7th March 2011. Thanks to Bloomsbury for sending me this title to review. 

February 22, 2011

Sing, Sing, Sing (Review: The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney)

The Mockingbirds
Daisy Whitney
Little Brown 2010

Alex is a student at the progressive Themis boarding school, a liberal institution whose administration believes that treating it's teenage students like mature adults will encourage them to act likewise (because mature adults are all such paragons of virtue, good decision making and niceness, right?). While Themis may sound like every student's dream school, the reality is that misdemeanors – from the mild to the extreme – go ignored and unpunished. When Alex wakes one morning with the suspicion that she has been date raped she instinctively knows that there is little good in her approaching a teacher. Instead, she turns to The Mockingbirds – an undercover justice racket that the students of Themis have created to both investigate crimes to the student body and also to mete out punishment where necessary.

Alex is a challenging character to read, particularly because readers only get to know her through the prism of her recent and shocking experience.. At the start of the novel (where she wakes up naked next to a boy who she barely knows) she is clearly in a state of shock. As she slowly come to terms with what has happened to her, her emotions swing from one state to another through humiliation, fear, anger, guilt and confusion. Alex has been raped, an ordeal that has fundamentally changed her on every level and because of this she doesn't know who she is any more than the reader does. Over the course of the novel, Alex starts to find herself again – through music, friendship and a tentative relationship. She uses the terms before and after several times during her narration and it is clear that whoever Alex was before the book started, she is someone similar yet inherently different from the moment she wakes up in that bed. While Alex's growing relationship with Martin was something that I initially found slightly odd, considering the fact that she is recovering from a sexual assault. However, it becomes clear that her friendship with Martin is an important part of Alex reclaiming herself – and reclaiming all that can be good about a relationship with the opposite sex. In reality, I don't think she would have stepped into such a relationship so quickly but I also think that it's important for the overall themes of the novel that she does.

The central conceit of The Mockingbirds at first seems extreme – would a school administration really be so ignorant of it's students that said students would resort to creating their own justice system? I don't know – perhaps not, but for the purposes of this book, Themis staff walk around in a state of happy denial and the students respect and obey their own private system of law. While The Mockingbird's system is extremely well thought out – it includes councils, trials, juries and witness systems – I had a slight problem with how it was implemented. I found it hard to believe that every student convicted of an offense would just take it sitting down and there seemed to be no process in place to deal with a refusal to obey.

What is, of course, at the heart of this novel is the date rape of Alex by Carter (a truly disgusting piece of work who never seems to accept that he has committed a crime). Daisy Whitney, herself a survivor of rape, bravely sets the scene so that the situation surrounding Alex's rape is not black and white – at least, not to Alex. She was drunk and she can't remember what happened (at first) but is certain that she didn't agree to losing her virginity to a boy she barely knows. In fact, she's pretty sure that she passed out before she could agree or disagree to anything. But she's not sure – and this is key. I am certain that this kind of rape goes largely unreported because the victims just aren't confident enough of what has happened to them. Whitney reiterates again and again that the lack of a clear “no” does not constitute a “yes” and this is a message that cannot be shouted too loudly – to all sexes and all ages. As Alex slowly remembers the night in question, things for while seem even less clear and it is only due to the strength of her friends that she doesn't crack under the guilt and shame that she feels.

The Mockingbirds deals with the issue of date rape superbly, never undermining the seriousness of what has happened to Alex with the subplot of a school justice system. The schools I know don't have a flock of Mockingbirds willing to swoop in and fight injustice, and not every student has friends who will understand the implications of rape and encourage them to stand up to their attacker. For those schools and those students it is a comfort to know that there are books like The Mockingbirds, providing guidance, hope and at least some answers as well as perhaps the courage to not let such attacks stand. I highly recommend this title.

The Mockingbirds is available now.  Thank you to UK Book Tours for providing me with this title to review.

February 19, 2011

And The Stars Look Very Different Today (Review: Across The Universe; Beth Revis)

Across The Universe
Beth Revis
Razorbill 2011

Space, as well as being the final frontier, would appear to be the next big thing in young adult fiction. James Frey saw it when he approached Jobie Hughes with I Am Number 4 and I am sure that the publication of the far superior Across The Universe will herald a slew of titles set beyond the confines of earth. This is no bad thing. While not all YA readers may be into sci-fi, most are into fresh and original writing – something that Across The Universe certainly exhibits.

At first glance, the plot of Beth Revis's debut novel is fairly simple: Amy and her parents are cryogenically frozen (cryogenics seem to be a bit better in this book than they are in, say, real life) in order to undertake a 300 year voyage to a new planet. When she finds herself being rapidly unfrozen, she fully expects to open her eyes to a new sky – except that Amy has been woken up 50 years too early. While she's been sleeping, the ship she's been on has become it's own society with it's inhabitants having an extensive history - one that doesn't include their frozen cargo. Watching her wake is Elder, future leader of the ship, who rapidly starts to question everything he's ever learnt.

Elder and Amy are an interesting pair. Amy is perhaps the more straightforward, being recognisable as a teenage girl torn out of her comfort zone (and, in this case, her ice box). At the start of the novel we see her make the difficult decision to stay with her parents and her dismay at waking to find that they are still frozen is tangible. However, Amy isn't a character to sit and mope and her constant push for understanding and answers about the odd community she now finds herself part of is the driving force of the novel. Yet, for the main part Amy's character is forced to be reactive – lurching from one situation to another, acting as a cypher through which we gain an objective eye on the society aboard the ship. While this doesn't detract from the story, it does mean that readers perhaps do not get to know Amy as well as they get to know Elder.

Elder is fascinating. Born to lead, literally, he is under the tutelage of Eldest (and yes, the Elder/Eldest name thing does get a little confusing at points) – current leader of the ship, possible despot and all round grumpy old man. Everything that Amy finds bizarre about the ship, Elder finds utterly normal. Not only is it all he's ever known, it is all anyone he's ever met has ever known. Amy's appearance forces him to question everything he's ever believed. The struggle that he has with this is very believable. Rather than shucking off the old to embrace the new, Elder turns everything he learns over in his head numerous times before making decisions. Elder makes some mistakes along the way and perhaps moves more slowly on things than Amy would like but when he finally starts to understand the inner workings of his community his actions are fast and decisive.

While other characters are few and far between, those that do feature are multi-faceted and all play a part in illustrating how life on the ship works. Most notable is Eldest, who is really quite unpleasant yet clearly feels pressured by the responsibility of leadership. While it isn't possible to actively like his character, it is possible to see that he absolutely believes in what he is doing. Which takes us to the heart of Beth Revis's story because, of all the themes that run through the book, the plot always circles back to the difficulties of leadership. As Elder learns what it truly means to be Eldest, he sometimes finds himself shocked but mainly finds himself confused. As any leader must truly know, leadership contains no rights and wrongs, blacks and whites – just endless shades of grey. Through Elder, readers are encouraged to see that even the worst decisions are often made with good intentions.

The writing in Across The Universe is interesting. The opening scenes are some of the most arresting I have read – there is no gentle hand holding here. The community aboard the ship is absolutely fascinating and often shocking – the reality of The Season is not something that I expected to find in YA fiction and I can only applaud the brutal yet concise way in which this is portrayed. The plotting is skillful and the denouement is far from predictable. If the comparisons between Amy's world and life aboard the ship lack subtlety (one particular reference to Hitler is a prime example of over-egging the pudding) then this is more than balanced by the intricate world that Revis has created. The only issue that crops up as far as the story is concerned is that of chronology – the whole book seems to take place over the course of less than a week and this seems impossibly quick considering events.

Part sci-fi, part dystopia and part social commentary, Across The Universe is unlike anything else currently available in the YA world. Amy and Elder are characters that will stay with you after you finish reading and the issues raised will certainly make you think. First in a trilogy (aren't they all?) Across The Universe is completely open ended – finishing quietly and leaving many questions. This is a title worth reading.

Across The Universe is released in paperback in the UK on 3rd March. Many thanks to Puffin for sending me this copy to review.

February 14, 2011

Her Own Personal Jesus (Review: Heavenly/Penitence/Absolution by Jennifer Laurens)

Jennifer Laurens
Grove Creek Press 2009/2010

Zoe is eighteen, in her senior year of high school and not having the easiest time of it. Her five year old sister is autistic and while her parents are loving, they are also constantly distracted by the strain of looking after Abria. Zoe's sixteen year old brother, Luke, is teetering on the edge of a serious drug habit and she herself is self-medicating with booze, parties and inappropriate friends. Zoe finds herself resentful, rebellious and angry and seems to be wallowing in hopelessness until she encounters a young man talking to her sister in the local park. His name is Matthias and he is Abria's guardian angel.

I know, I know! The YA market is saturated with angel stories and they're not all terribly good, turning into run of the mill paranormal romances complete with predictable love triangles and golden wings. Jennifer Lauren's trilogy does have a romantic aspect and yes, Zoe has some choices to make with regards to her love life – in fact, everything you would expect to show up absolutely does. Yet there are aspects of these books that make them different and interesting – and these have nothing to do with Matthias and his heavenly host (not that a heavenly host is mentioned, he just seems like the kind of guy who might have one).

Zoe is a refreshingly unique protagonist. At first, she's not very likable. In fact, throughout all three books she says and does things that aren't all that nice – but that are very believable. Who hasn't said something cruel or snippy and regretted it straight away? In fact, who hasn't said something horrid and not regretted it at all? It's a brave way to write a character and makes Zoe really compelling to read. Zoe's family play a large role in all three books, particularly her brother Luke. Rather than being a token sibling figure, he is a multi-faceted character who plays as much a role in Zoe's life and story as any of her friends. Their relationship is close, but not that overly chummy friendship that you see in some fictional family ties – they argue plenty, and with style.

Other characters in the story are no less intriguing. Weston and Britt are probably the most interesting, with Weston prompting real pause for thought. I did have some issues with the growing friendship between Zoe and Weston. No matter how remorseful he was after the fact and how drunk he was during it, his actions in Heavenly were extreme and I felt that Zoe forgave him rather too quickly. As an adult, I can see that this ties into the overall themes of the books (particularly those in Penitence) but would worry about teenagers perhaps picking up a different message. Weston is a sympathetic character and his remorse is both believable and painful but I think Zoe's forgiveness should have been slightly harder to come by.

Younger sister, Abria, is exceptionally well written. Having worked with an autistic child of about Abria's age I found the depiction of autism in these books to be very accurate. I believe that Jennifer Laurens has an autistic child of her own and this would account for the ring of truth that many of Abria's actions have. Laurens has written Abria as a happy, if demanding, ray of sunshine and it was a pleasure to see an autistic child portrayed so positively without the very real strains of caring for such a child being undermined in any way.

Absolution (Heavenly, #3)Of course there is also Angel Matthias to take into account. He's all well and good (although I found his turn of speech irritating rather than endearing) but I didn't really understand the nature of his relationship with Zoe. There is less of a love triangle and more of a menage-e-trois (don't get any ideas, it's not that kind of book) with Zoe seeming to have her cake and eat it for most of the trilogy. Of all the angel books I've read recently, however, Matthias probably fits the role of traditional angel best. He dresses in light colours, seems to embody serenity and is an all round nice sort of chap. The thing is, he's not half as interesting as the mortal characters and I often just wanted him to fly away and let the earthly story lines unfold unhindered.

The angelic story line in Heavenly, Penitence and Absolution is interesting in its own way but really it isn't what makes this trilogy stand out. The strengths of these books are in the contemporary writing, not the paranormal. Difficult themes are covered with real deftness; from drug addiction and teen drinking, to attempted rape and sexual abuse of children all wrapped in the trilogy's central themes of remorse and forgiveness. Sadly, these books haven't been published in the UK but, should you come across them, take a look – they do far more than they say on the tin (in fact, they have been rather woefully blurbed and I would advise not reading the back at all) and mark Jennifer Laurens out as a contemporary writer to watch.

Heavenly, Penitence and Absolution can be ordered via The Book Depository. Thank you to the lovely Emma at Asamum Booktopia for lending me these titles - and for being so patient when it took me an age to finally read them.

February 10, 2011

Just To Break My Fall (Review: Going Too Far by Jennifer Echols)

Going Too Far
Jennifer Echols
MTV Books 2009

I'm not always a fan of contemporary fiction – often I find it either too grim or too silly and so tend to avoid it in favour of less recognisable worlds. In fact, one of the last contemporary novels that I read was Jennifer Echols Forget You. While I enjoyed it to an extent, I wasn't entirely sure about the main character and had difficulty empathising with her situation. I am aware that that was just me – everyone else seems to have loved it and it was this rampant JE love that encouraged me to give her writing another go and pick up Going Too Far.

Going Too Far is told from the point of view of Meg, a bit of a wild child who finds herself being drunken and inappropriate with a drunken and inappropriate boy on a darkened rail bridge, in front of an oncoming train. Luckily, an Officer Of The Law is passing (well, prowling) and arrests them before they can get squished. This isn't the first time that Meg has been in trouble – she seems to have been raising hell for quite some time – but it is the first time she has come across this particular protector of the peace. Expecting to get off with just a wrist-slapping she instead finds herself having to abandon her spring break for a week's ride along with Officer After. At first she's unimpressed. OK, not just at first – she remains unimpressed for quite a while. Then she realises that Officer After and herself are closer in age than you would expect and that he just might have an interesting story to tell.

Meg is utterly refreshing as a narrator who really just couldn't give a crap what anyone thinks of her. She says exactly what she thinks exactly when she thinks it and whirls through life, friends and her parent's diner like a determined and angry tornado. Meg lives life to it's utmost and then some, always looking for the next high, next boy or next crazy experience – anything that will make her feel absolutely and truly alive. This is interesting enough, but what makes her fascinating is that she isn't exactly on the wrong track – in fact, Meg has a bright future ahead of her (good grades, a college scholarship) if she can only keep herself alive long enough to get there. Her slow appreciation of Officer After is interesting to read. She genuinely resents him and doesn't really understand, for the majority of the book, why he is so hell bent on keeping her out of trouble. I'd like to find more Megs to read about – she's really pretty fabulous.

Not, however, as fabulous as John After. Ah, Johnafter – surely he is the perfect creation as far as YA love interests go? He's hot, of course, in a I-Go-To-The-Gym-Favour-A-Military-Buzzcut-Yet-Have-Oddly-Cool-TShirts kind of way. Mainly, though, he deliciously complex. He's a cop and an artist, a grown-up who's not nearly as grown up as he purports to be, a rule-follower who bends the rules to almost breaking point and a runner who can't quite give up his nightly smoke. He's believably flawed, believably focused and also believably nineteen. I may love him. It's true. The relationship between him and Meg perhaps tests believability but this is referred to enough that it isn't an issue – and who cares, anyway? Not me, I was desperate to see what would happen between them and it really could have gone either way – in fact, at the end you suspect that it could still veer onto a different course. This, though, is one of the charms of Jennifer Echols's writing.

And her writing is excellent. Firstly, this book is hilarious. I read it while on a plane and, quite frankly, embarrassed myself by snorting wine out of my nose due to intense snickering. I don't remember the last time I laughed so hard while reading. I particularly like Meg's use of the phrase “sullen malarkey” - I plan on integrating this into my general vocabulary along with “I am full of fear”. Also, use of flagrant capitalisation will always go down well with this reader.

At times Going Too Far is extremely moving with the histories of both characters making poignant reading. Echols managed to make me genuinely feel for both Meg and John – something I wasn't expecting. She cleverly brings them to life using a cast of characters who drift in and out of the story adding weight and background to each of the leads. Going Too Far manages to be not only an incredibly entertaining read but also a beautiful story about redemption, absolution and love and I can't recommend it enough.

Certainly I will be purchasing all other titles by Jennifer Echols but I also find that this has turned me towards other contemporary fiction – it's all I want to read right now and already I'm discovering some gems. Any recommendations would be more than welcome – but you can find me a contemporary title that I enjoy more than Going Too Far then I will be extremely surprised.

February 08, 2011

All That Glitters (Reviews of The Other Countess and The Queen's Lady by Eve Edwards)

The Other Countess and The Queen's Lady
Eve Edwards
Razorbill 2010/11

I have oft been heard to say that I do not enjoy historical fiction but, having been proved wrong time and time again, I may have to start qualifying that with the statement that when it is done well it can be jolly good fun. Which is the case in point when it comes to The Other Countess and The Queen's Lady – the first two books in a hugely enjoyable new series by Eve Edwards. Both titles are set in the late 1500's against the backdrop of Elizabethan England and follow the paths of several young nobles and their households.

The Other Countess focuses on three characters whose path intertwine over the course of what is a charming and well realised tale. The main protagonist (although there are sections from all points of view) is Ellie, a Spanish Countess who finds herself struggling against the ambition of her lovable if slightly dotty Alchemist father. Ellie is a sweet girl who genuinely cares for her father, despite the fact that his futile quest for gold has cost her all of hers. After being made destitute by the new Earl of Dorset (who blames the alchemist for his families financial difficulties), Ellie finds herself face to face with the young Earl several years later – this time at the royal court. Will Lacey, said Earl, is more than a little surprised to find that the beautiful girl he encounters is the daughter of a man whom he considers an enemy and the two begin a rather choppy relationship that swithers between disdain, tentative friendship and more. The third character is one Lady Jane who, despite being from a much wealthier family, finds herself drawn to Ellie and slowly her fate becomes seemingly inextricably linked to that of Ellie and Will.

The story plays out nicely and, while sometimes predictable, is so delightfully written that it is hard to put it down. While the story as pertains to the three characters may lack depth, it is offset by the historical background against which it is set. Queen Elizabeth has recently imprisoned her Scottish cousin, Mary, and is busy routing out Catholics left, right and centre – determined that England shall be a protestant country. This is touched on just enough during The Other Countess to give the story a ring of authenticity. Equally, Eve Edwards attention to detail adds texture to the novel. From depictions of court fashion (think The Tudors and you're just about there, although in fashion only – The Other Countess doesn't go anywhere near the sexy times enjoyed by Henry Cavill and co.) to village life, it's all fascinating. Adding yet more realism is the clever placing of real life figures such as Walter Ralegh among the fictional cast.

The Queen's Lady picks up several months after the end of The Last Countess and again returns to the Lacey family as it's starting point. This time, rather than following eldest brother Will, the story focuses on his brother James. Poor James hasn't had the easiest time of it, having been fighting in the Low Countries (Europe) he's seen things that he'd really rather forget and finds himself lost and depressed on his return home. Will's reaction to this is to send him off to join Walter Ralegh's latest venture – a voyage to the newly discovered Americas with his servant Diego. The two find themselves at court, prior to leaving and James encounters the Dowager Marchioness of Rievaulx serving as one of Elizabeth's Ladies in Waiting. The Marchioness will be recognisable to readers of The Other Countess and it is her and James's stories that carry The Queen's Lady. As background to their rather tangled affairs the author treats us to a further two points of view, that of Diego and of Molly, a seamstress in London's Cheapside.

The Queen's Lady takes place almost entirely at the royal court and this, to my mind, lifted it above The Other Countess. The courtly intrigue and etiquette are absolutely fascinating with Elizabeth glinting in the background of every decision, conversation and plot. Elizabeth's reign is by far my favourite period of British history, mainly because the Queen and her country seem to have sat together so incongruously. This is illustrated particularly well in The Queen's Lady where one of the main story lines is that of the Marchioness being forced into marriage by her father. In Elizabethan times women were owned by the men in their family and had little say in their own future or fortune. While marriages could not go ahead without the blessing of Elizabeth herself, she rarely intervened. It is a curious thing that a country where women were so powerless was overseen by such a powerful women and the sections of this title that involve Elizabeth directly are by far the most gripping.

Like The Other Countess, The Queen's Lady is a very enjoyable read. Again, it leans towards predictability but that only adds to the charm of watching the characters stumble through their various troubles to the satisfying conclusion. These two titles are such fun to read and an excellent introduction to historical fiction for those who have not tried it before. I highly recommend both books to anyone looking for an enjoyable way to pass the time – there are few eras quite as interesting to escape into as this one. The third book in the series, The Rogue's Princess, will be released this summer and promises to follow an illegitimate son and the object of his affections. I, with my loathing of historical fiction, find myself surprised at how much I am looking forward to returning to the Lacey family and their fascinating friends.

The Other Countess and The Queen's Lady are available now. Thank you to Puffin for sending me these titles to review.

February 06, 2011

IMM (#32)

In My Mailbox is a meme created and hosted by Kristi over at The Story Siren with inspiration from Alea at Pop Culture JunkieAll book titles link to further info at GoodreadsAll books in this IMM post have been received for review/bought/gifted/ loaned/UK Book Toured/NetGalley-ed/acquired through nefarious means.

Sophie Jordan
OUP 2011
This title was responsible for The Crooked Shelf bemoaning the lack of "dragon sexy times", which would have been enough to inspire me to take a peek. Even without that impetus it looks like it has an original premise and should be an enjoyable read.

Twenty Boy Summer
Sarah Ockler
Little Brown 2009
This book has been on my wishlist forever and I have heard only good things about it. I meant to read it during Banned Books Week last year and am glad that I now have time and opportunity to take a look.

Sara Zarr
Little Brown 2008
Forever Young Adult have worn me down with their endless, fawning references to Cameron Quick and I could wait no longer to find out who this mythic figure might be. I'll be investigating Marcus Flutie next...

I Know It's Over
C Kelly Martin
Random House 2009
Another title that I've wanted to read for a while.  Once again, I've read only positive reviews of this book and like the premise.

My Name Is Memory
Ann Brashares
Hodder and Stoughton 2010
I remember being quite intrigued by this one when it was first released and, while I think the idea has been done before, it sounds like the kind of story that could entirely transport the reader.

My Soul To Take
Rachel Vincent
Harlequin 2009
I am curious to see what the author does with banshees. That is all.

Everything I Needed To Know About Being A Girl, I Learned From Judy Blume
Jennifer O'Connell (ed)
Pocket Books 2007
This is a collection of essays by 24 authors who include Meg Cabot, Diane Peterfreund and Megan McCafferty. I'm about half way through and have found them touching, funny and heartfelt. This really is a gem and not only is it enjoyable to read but it is also proving to be a trigger for so many of my own memories. Fabulous.

That's it for this week. As you can see, I'm having a bit of a contemporary fiction kick at the moment and very much enjoying it. And that Judy Blume essay collection is an absolute must read for any of you who read her books as a child and teen. Happy reading!

February 03, 2011

Lord Of The Dance (review: Dancing Jax by Robin Jarvis)

Dancing Jax
Robin Jarvis
Harper Collins 2011

It was a dark and stormy night... Well, not really but that's the general atmosphere in the opening chapters of Robin Jarvis's Dancing Jax an odd tale that, suitably, takes it's readers on a long and meandering dance through some strange and depressing territory. The book opens on a band of friends breaking into an abandoned house. As well as a lot of rather icky mould, the house contains a conservatory full of strange fruit, an ancient metal throne and, most importantly, several copies of a book named Dancing Jacks. Leader Jezza is instantly entranced by the story that the book tells – one of royal courts, mad jesters and noble (and not so noble) lords and ladies. With his encouragement, his friends are slowly sucked into the story and copies of the book start to make their way into the larger community of Felixstowe with surprising and sinister affect.

Dancing Jax has no one protagonist, rather the narrative moves from one point of view to another, using an increasingly large cast of characters. In the earlier sections of the novel Sheila, one of the initial scavengers, features a little more prominently. She, vitally, provides a pair of objective eyes through which the reader can watch Jezza's machinations first hand. Later, the narrative is carried mainly by Martin a local secondary teacher, who's years in the classroom have imbibed him with cynicism and malaise. Of the many and varied viewpoints, the most striking is that of Conor, a fifteen year old who is already disillusioned with his short life. One of the reasons, however, that Conor is such an enjoyable character to read is that he is one of the few in Dancing Jax who seems to have genuine compassion and humanity. In fact, other than an old piano teacher (who has a small but interesting role) he was the only character in the real world aspect of this book that I actually liked.

The central conceit of Dancing Jax is that the pages of the strange book found in the old house, are so entrancing that readers begin inhabit the fictional characters – compelled by some dark force to believe that real life is nothing but a colourless dream. To be honest, were I living in the Felixstowe of Robin Jarvis's imagination then I would be pretty compelled to escape into a book too. There is nothing positive in Jarvis's vision of modern Britain. From almost the first page, characters go on lengthy diatribes about the state of society – covering issues such as the influx of technology, youth culture and influence of the media. The characters spouting their opinions are, almost without exception, embittered, hypocritical bigots and I despised the lot of them. Even, I suspect, those I was meant to like. Where the book comes alive, is in the sections taken from Dancing Jacks itself. The fantasy world of the book involves a hierarchy based on a deck of cards and is absolutely fascinating as well as being darkly sinister – like the residents of the town, I found myself keen to return. Clever as this is – and it really is, with Jarvis managing to elicit the same response in readers of Dancing Jax as seen in the readers of Dancing Jacks - it doesn't quite redeem what I ultimately found to be a frustrating reading experience.

The book riffs on themes that range from the influence any canny faction can have over a collapsing society to the danger of an all intrusive media to the power of the written world. Often it's interesting, but more often the plot gets lost in a convoluted mish mash of ideas, characters and relentless pop culture references. Dancing Jax is the first in a series of books, which is just as well as none of the questions that I had were actually answered during the course of the book. It is certainly an original title – I've never read anything quite like it – and is compelling in it's own, strange way being at times reminiscent of works by Stephen King (in particular Needful Things) and Clive Barker yet it's not particularly successful as a coherent story. Perhaps I am missing the point; while reading, I periodically suspected that Robin Jarvis was doing something awfully clever that I just didn't understand. However, in retrospect I would have to surmise that, interesting as this novel is, for me it never amounted to more than the sum of it's rather confounding parts.

Dancing Jax is available now – thank you to Harper Collins for sending me with this title to review.